Olympus E-500, the Next Generation?
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This is not a review, of the Olympus E-500 SLR — rather a comparison of its features and specifications against the current E-300 (and, less directly, |
For full details refer to my E-500 review.
In a surprising move, in September of 2005 Olympus announced a new digital SLR, the E-500. Why surprising? Look: at that moment their previous DSLR, the E-300, was on the market for less than a year, and everyone rather expected a successor to the pro-grade E-1, especially now, with so much of premium glass available for the E-System.
Well, perhaps Olympus is aiming for the segment of the market where most of the money is. Maybe they felt the successor to E-1 needs more development time, maybe they wanted to capitalize on the Christmas shopping rush — it's for them to know and for us to keep guessing.
Anyway, the E-500 is here, and the first question many of us will have is how it compares to its predecessor, the E-300 (which I like a lot, after having used it for a year).
(Picture by Olympus)
Warning: this is a long article; before you really start reading, get yourself a cup of coffee (or a mug of beer, preferably ale or stout) and switch into something comfortable. Consider yourself warned.
The obvious: the new body
Olympus decided to go for an entirely new body in the E-500, as opposed to re-using that of the E-300. This is costly, as it involves serious re-tooling of the manufacturing facilities, so this is not an easy decision to make. Three explanations, not necessarily exclusive, are possible:
One noticeable difference is in the size and weight: at 435 g (body, no battery) the E-500 weighs about 150 g less than the E-300; at 130 x 95 mm (WxH) it is 16 mm less wide than the E-300, while the pentaprism makes it 10 mm taller (still 11 mm less tall than the E-1, which was just too big for my taste). If you exclude the pentaprism (sorry, the pentamirror!) housing, the body height is less than that of the E-300.
This looks like a very handy size to me; close to the Pentax *ist D (125 x 93 mm) at only 5 mm and 2 mm larger dimensions. I'm also glad Olympus was able to get rid of the left-hand protrusion of the body.
Obviously, the existing power grips will not be usable with the new camera. There is no power grip option for the E-500, and I'm not missing it.
While the E-300 body was made of polycarbonate plastic, it had a metal frame inside, plus an aluminum top cover. A similar frame is used in the E-500, but it looks thinner and smaller, at least on pictures provided by Olympus. Most probably, a weight-cutting measure.
The feel and finish of the E-500 are good, although not at par with the E-300. The significant reduction in weight did not make the camera the E-500 to have a feel similar to Canon and Nikon offerings in the sub-$1000 price range. The new model also has the nicely rubberized, easy to grip surfaces almost like those in the E-300.
Other major new features
The new camera has a number of new features, easy to miss when reading the specifications. Let me first focus on those which I consider of most importance for an advanced amateur user. The list is not necessarily in order of importance.
Dual battery standard
Yes, you've heard me right! Now you can have it both ways:
The nominal voltage of the BLM-1 is 7.2 V, that of the CR123 — 3V. This means you need three CR123's in series to feed the camera.
The LBH-1 holder fits inside the camera's battery compartment and it takes three CR123's. More, it does fit into that compartment in other Olympus cameras designed for the BLM-1, including E-1 and E-300 (Olympus warns against using this power source in any other cameras, so we cannot be sure if it is safe with the C-5060/7070WZ).
There is also a rechargeable version of CR123, based on the Li-Ion chemistry and providing the voltage of about 3.2 V. The bad news is that these have only about 700 mAh charge; a set of three stores about 6.7 Wh of energy (or 5.3 Wh if you assume that the excess voltage is wasted; possibly anything in-between). On the practical front, CR123 chargers accept either one or two batteries, but not three: another hassle. Besides, after having done my homework on rechargeable RCR-V3's, I would feel better when RCR-123's become available from a major manufacturer.
I'm sticking to the BLM-1, having bought the LBH-1 holder just in case of running out of juice in one BLM-1 when another one dies, or my charger goes to the angels while I'm on a two-week vacation in Peru. Last time I looked, disposable CR123's were stocked in most drugstores and even at National Park System souvenir stores. Reassuring.
In addition, the E-500 includes a number of lesser tweaks and improvements; some of them are features which, while present in the E-1, were stripped down from the E-300 to make it less competitive against the Olympus flagship model. Here is a list, as incomplete as it may be.
I am nicely surprised: all changes in this department seem to be for the better, and many address my complaints about the E-300. This time somebody really did their homework. While the basic "push a button and turn the wheel" metaphor has been retained, the button assignment and arrangement is improved. Skip over this section if you are not really interested in details.
Here is the camera's back. hosting all controls except for the mode dial (with the on/off switch lever) and the exposure compensation button. The dials are slightly tilted back, like on the E-1.
While the "Hyper Crystal LCD" logo serves no purpose, the layout of the buttons is logical; details are given below.
The cursor key cluster looks identically to that on the C-5060/7070WZ. It does not look as robust at that in the E-300, but should serve its purpose just fine.
(Picture by Olympus)
It seems that Olympus has addressed all my complaints about control layout and assignment. Overall, not a very visible, but a very thoughtful job.
New, but not so important
Today's market pays attention to the sheer number of features, often regardless of how useful they may be. The manufacturers are tempted to add things of tertiary importance, just to look better on paper, to a casual reader.
Obviously, this may be to some extent a matter of taste, but not entirely so. Here I'm listing those "improvements" which, in my opinion at least, are of minimum importance or usability, so that you can decide.
First of all: Olympus sticks to the Four Thirds lens/sensor standard. Of course.
I consider this to be a major advantage of the E-System; this is the just the right sensor size, and the 4:3 aspect ratio is better than the 3:2 one, inherited from 35-mm film cameras (where it was introduced by accident back in 1926, by merging two movie frames of 4:3 aspect).
A 3:2 frame has to be cropped to fit into any standard, or generally pleasing, print format (except for the drugstore 4x6"), at the expense of about 15% of pixels thrown away, and some loss to wide-angle lens capability — and remember the big bucks you pay for every millimeter shaved off your lens' focal length.
While using the 4/3 standard is a given, some other features from older models have been retained, for good or bad. Here is a partial list.
Compromises and omissions
I'll skip the discussion of the size/weight versus cost versus sturdiness issue, as this is obvious and understandable. Let me just list a few compromises or omissions which are new to this model; ones inherited from the E-300 will be discussed in the next section.
Warts and all?
If you have read my detailed review of the E-300, you may have noticed that the E-500 addresses a number of minor gripes I had with that model. Here is my list of remaining issues, arranged more or less in decreasing order of importance.
The new "kit" lens: keeping the price down?
In a somewhat surprising move, on some markets Olympus sells the E-500 as a kit with a new, 17.5-45 mm, F/3.5-5.6 lens (this is the EFL of 35-90 mm). This looks like the low-end offering from Olympus, aimed at the bottom of the market, who would not appreciate the 28 mm (EFL) wide end of the 14-45 mm "economy" zoom. Certainly, the new lens must be less expensive to make; it is the wide end which costs.
Even with the expected price difference of $100 or less, I consider the 14-45 mm a better alternative.
Interestingly, the kit with the new lens has been announced only in the U.K. as the "SE" version. Our British friends are also able to buy two kits available in the States: one with the 14-45 mm, and another with two zooms (14-45 and 40-150 mm, both lenses surprisingly good for the money; this would be my choice), or, last but not least, the body alone.
Actually, from the commercial viewpoint the cheaper lens may be a smart move — as long as other options also remain available.
Who needs this camera?
One thing I'm not sure about is at what market is Olympus aiming the E-500. The possibilities are:
It is difficult to cater to all three categories at once.
The first group is who wants all the bells and whistles (and who study resolution charts). They constitute majority of newsgroup participants and, judging from the email I'm receiving, most of the Readers of this site. The degree of photographic expertise in this group varies widely.
The second one just needs a reliable camera with generally good specs and easy access to the most important features; then they go by image quality (whatever it means). Some of this group might have heavily invested into legacy lenses, in which case they may be unwilling to switch brands.
The third category does not know or care: they just expect their pictures to be as good as the camera's star rating in one of the reviews; not a single person of that group lasted to this point of the article, so I can be frank here.
I believe the E-500 addresses best the needs of the first group, and this is the user profile on which Olympus should focus. This is not possible without gaining a nod of approval from the second group, as this is where the first one looks for any signs.
Olympus faces a tough choice between being the most innovative of digital camera makers (they should have introduced the GR-1, not Ricoh!), and trying to increase their market share, regaining its pieces from Canon, Nikon, or Sony. It is difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile both goals — and the first one may even help in the second. This is, however, a highly speculative area' let's stick to technical issues.
Instead of conclusion
Since the original version of this article, I've used the E-500 a lot. Olympus has a real winner here.
I liked the E-1, even more the E-300; with all complaints I might have had, I considered them better than the direct competition from other makers. Of course, this is always arguable, but the results I've been getting for the last year from my E-300 were very satisfactory, and limited not by the camera, but by my skills as a photographer.
The image quality of the E-500 matches that of the E-300 (the same sensor and optics), and the camera has the right feel in the hand, with very good control interface, vastly improved from the E-300 or E-1. It clearly looks like a very attractive choice, a tough act for other makers to match. It may or may not become a market success, as the market is not always driven by the virtues of the product, but it will certainly gain a dedicated and enthusiastic following, even if a minority one.
If you are new to digital SLRs, and want to decide if to jump on that bandwagon, do not hesitate; this is a good point to start from. If you already have an E-1 or E-300, there seems to be no urgent need to get their new sibling, unless you need a second body.
The E-500 may be a good choice for a semi-serious photographer like myself: it is much lighter and smaller than I expect the E-2(?) to be, and it will save me enough money to buy at least one of the better 4/3 lenses I'm so salivating upon.
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